Margaret Spellings–the person Bush political strategist Karl Rove called “the most influential woman in Washington that you’ve never heard of”–was tapped Nov. 17 to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.
Her nomination by President Bush came just four days after current ED Secretary Rod Paige’s resignation. (See: “Bush II: Paige out, NCLB to high school“)
Spellings, 46, has a long association with Bush, having served as his senior adviser while he was governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000. During the president’s first term, Spellings served in the White House as assistant to the president for domestic policy. As a member of Bush’s staff when he was governor of Texas, she helped him formulate a state education policy that later became the backbone of the national No Child Left Behind Act.
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Considered by some Washington insiders as a policy maven, Spellings also is said to possess keen political acumen. When Bush ran for governor in 1994, she was his political director. Shortly after Bush won, Spellings–then known as Margaret LaMontagne–became his education adviser and helped him pass legislation that emphasized accountability and achievement, local control, and early-childhood reading skills–all of which became part of the national law.
A 1979 graduate of the University of Houston, Spellings was associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards before joining Bush’s gubernatorial campaign.
If confirmed by the Senate as expected, Spellings will become the second woman to become Secretary of Education since the department was created in 1979. The first woman to hold the office, Shirley M. Hufstedler, was appointed by President Carter on May 7, 1980.
In Spellings’ home state of Texas, she oversaw the Texas Reading Initiative and the Student Success Initiative to eliminate social promotion. She also played a key role in developing a rigorous assessment system–and is a strong advocate for school accountability.
Since coming to Washington, Spellings reportedly has influenced Bush’s domestic agenda on everything from justice to housing. Many policies she advocated were endorsed by the president during his 2004 re-election campaign. These include a revision of Social Security, limiting medical malpractice litigation, and making more taxpayer funds available to faith-based organizations that do charitable work.
“You bet she was an education person in Texas, but I realized how brilliant a woman she is,” Bush told the Dallas Morning News in 2001. “She can handle just about every task we give her.”
Perhaps Spellings’ most notable accomplishment over the past four years was her role as architect of the national No Child Left Behind law. She has said education has always been her main policy interest.
The National Education Association, which Paige alienated earlier this year when he called it a “terrorist organization,” reacted positively to the Spellings selection.
“This is a great opportunity for the administration to change the tone of its discourse with the education community, particularly the 2.7 million members of the National Education Association who are in schools all over this nation,” NEA President Reg Weaver said in a published statement. “We look forward to finding common ground with Ms. Spellings in her new role.”
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., also expressed support for Spellings, calling her “a capable, principled leader who has the ear of the president and has earned strong, bipartisan respect in Congress.”
Age is perhaps the most dramatic difference between Spellings and Paige. Spellings is 25 years younger than her predecessor. She also seems less likely to upset teacher’s unions and is reportedly more interested in dialogue with educators.
“She’s conservative, but she’ll listen to teachers; she’ll listen to administrators,” former Bush senior education adviser Sandy Kress told the Associated Press. “She wants to change the system, but she wants to talk to people in the system.”
Spellings’ appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Confirmation hearings are expected to get under way in January.
Spellings’ White House bio
U.S. Dept. of Education